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Waste Pickers and Waste Picking in the Industrializing Nations

Millions of people worldwide make a living collecting, sorting, recycling, and selling materials that has been thrown away. Waste pickers are largely unrecognised for the function they perform and yet many see them as vital to the informal economy of most developing nations. Waste pickers provide widespread benefits to their communities, their municipalities and the environment, and it should be appreciated that in many countries, waste pickers supply the only form of solid waste collection.

The term waste pickers can be broadly defined as people who reclaim “reusable and recyclable materials from what others have cast aside as waste” (Samson 2009). Waste pickers can range from poor people rummaging through garbage in search of necessities such as food to informal private collectors of recyclables who sell to middlemen or businesses, at the top end of the scale these may be organized pickers/sorters represented by unions, cooperatives or associations.

However, almost always, waste picking is perceived as the lowest in the hierarchy of urban informal occupations. The status in society of pickers is usually the very lowest in the pecking order. In addition, a large number of those who survive through occupying themselves as pickers are women and children. Most of the are illiterate, unskilled people, migrants, and those lowest in the caste hierarchy and the poorest of the poor. These are the people who predominantly work as waste pickers. They pick because they are unable to find any other kind of employment. To make matters worse, many of them collect waste from informal and uncontrolled landfills in crowded urban areas.

Estimates of the total number of waste pickers are not readily available in most countries. However, some estimates have been given in some studies. For example, in Ahmedabad city there are a reported estimated 30,000 waste pickers and a large proportion of those are women and children. In the state of Gujarat overall there are estimated to be over 100,000 waste pickers. Another study of Delhi estimates that the numbers of waste pickers in Delhi alone would be approximately 100,000. The total population of waste pickers in Pune is is reportedly estimated to be 6,000, according to one study, of whom 72 per cent are women.

The sight of a waste picker walking the deserted streets, with a big bag slung on his back as you take your early morning constitutional, is a common sight to most people in India. Children and women are never far away, and suffer ill-health from the work to a greater extent than adults.

Wastepickers nevertheless, if asked when they see the amount of good recyclable waste being buried in landfills which are run in accordance with current standard good practise in the developed nations are shocked at the wastage they see. Reports of one visit of Indian pickers to South Africa inform us that they couldn’t believe their eyes and were completely shocked beyond words at the recyclable goods they saw in one RSA sanitary landfill. One of them a waste picker from Pune is reported to have said: “My heart has sunk, I can’t believe that they are burying all this good waste”.

In Brazil’s large cities, more than half a million people survive by collecting and selling solid waste. Most face very poor working conditions and have very low incomes as the intermediaries to whom they sell pay low prices. Their activities are actually considered illegal in some nations.

But if the waste pickers are organised in a manner which allow them to work safely amongst the rubbish they can save city governments money, contribute to cleaner cities and reduce the volume of waste that has to be dumped (at times, reportedly, by up to 20 per cent). These include waste picker cooperatives that can sell the materials they collect direct to industries, and that have partnerships with city municipal authorities who provide access to wastes, and help them obtain better prices and facilities to improve working conditions. This can include transferring the recyclable materials from dumps to recycling centres where picking can be done without risk of pickers being crushed by landfill compaction plant.

Recently, there have been initiatives to help raise money for pickers and their families and improve their working conditions. A France Libertés event is an example of coordination, in this case with the local authority of Plaine Commune (northern suburb of Paris) which hosted the 2nd Franco-Brazilian “Waste and Citizenship Week” from May 24-26th, 2011. This public event shared the experiences of Brazilian catadores (waste pickers) with a whole network of French participants working in waste management and the social economy. Attending the event, as representatives of the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers and Allies, included waste pickers from the KKPKP/ Alliance of Indian WastePickers, as well as from the Latin American and Carribean Waste Picker Network and allies from WIEGO.

This is not the only example of waste pickers getting organised. The Constitutional Court in Colombia recently made it clear that it backs waste pickers when it cancelled a $2.5 billion public bid, which would have pushed them out. This was seen as a huge victory for waste pickers in Colombia.

The Global Alliance of Waste Pickers and Allies brings waste pickers from Latin America, Asia and Africa together with support organizations and environmentalists offer real solutions to climate change mitigation and waste management. The solutions they propose has been reported as making economic sense, plus provides respect the environment and promotes social inclusion.

The Global Alliance of Waste Pickers and Allies rejects incineration, an activity that they claim pollutes the environment and marginalizes waste pickers.

History was made recently when waste pickers got together, creating the first waste picker owned fully integrated municipal waste system in India, in Osmanabad. They now hope to be able to spread this system across India, training waste pickers to collect and segregate garbage door-to-door to produce compost and recyclable plastic pellets and growing their income from a reported circa. $45 to $135 per month. In the process of gaining ownership and dignified financial independence, it is also asserted that a waste picker also prevents 120 tons of CO2 equivalent from harming the climate.

It is still true that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. And, in addition, no one knows this more literally than the world’s estimated 15 million waste picker population. Living off the discarded, waste pickers (also known as rag pickers, informal recyclers and scavengers) rummage through landfills, garbage cans and street corners picking up trash that can be recycled. These trashed goodies are then sold to middle men and recycling plants and have, in some cases, helped waste pickers escape poverty.

Take for example Delhi's estimated 150,000 waste picker population. Invisible to the rest of society and struggling to make ends meet, These impoverished individuals take to the streets to earn a living. Informal recycling becomes a family affair as many street children join in the trash digging and skip out on their education. Selling scraps to middle men and recycling plants, Delhi's waste picker community actually makes a difference! Approximately 20% of the Indian capital's trash is reported as being recycled in this way by waste pickers, saving the city around 12 lakh rupees (USD $2500) each day. And if you think that number is low, take into consideration India's concept of efficiency and the fact that a good chunk of government-paid trash collectors don't even show up for work.

The Alliance of Indian Wastepickers (AIW) is a grouping of over 30 organisations working with wastepickers in many different areas of India. Wastepickers work in the informal economy and earn livelihoods from recovering recyclable materials such as plastic, paper, metal and glass from waste. Their work ensures that India has one of the highest recycling rates in the world.

Waste Pickers Rise Up!

AIW highlights the contribution of wastepickers and aims to integrate their work into the management of solid waste. AIW organises events at national, state and city level to bring together a large number of wastepickers on one platform. It is devoted to helping to build support and solidarity among its members to address challenging situations at local level and also facilitates the participation of wastepickers in the UNFCCC (climate change) process.

Catadores (waste pickers in Spanish) are among the poorest and most marginalized people in Brazil. They are mainly women, children, recent migrants, unemployed, disabled and the elderly. In nearly all cases, trash picking is the last alternative to starvation. In Brazil, it is a way of life for an estimated 500,000 people. In São Paulo, a group of 300 waste pickers have come together to form seventeen trash recycling cooperatives under the umbrella of the waste picking union Rede CataSampa.

The informal recovery of materials from waste represents an important survival strategy for disadvantaged populations throughout the developing world. Waste pickers are perceived as the poorest of the poor and marginal to mainstream economy and society. In many cases, they are subject to exploitation and discrimination by middlemen and by local and ederal government policies. But, when scavenging is supported ending exploitation and discrimination, it represents a perfect illustration of sustainable development that can be achieved in the Third World: jobs are created, poverty is reduced, raw material costs for industry are lowered (while improving competitiveness), resources are conserved, pollution is reduced, and the environment is protected.

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